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OPINION: Obama White House hampers press access to sources

The Society of Professional Journalists and 37 other journalism and open government groups got the silent treatment when they wrote to the White House on July 8 and again on Aug. 5, urging President Barack Obama to rein in his administration’s use of excessive controls by federal public information officers. No word back on this from the Big Guy. And that’s a pity.

The groups did get a letter back from the White House this week mentioning Obama’s protection for whistleblowers, a streamlined Freedom of Information Act process and access to online visitor logs. But the letter doesn’t address other concerns, including a key one: journalists’ restricted access to sources, government scientists and officials who have critical information of public interest.

The groups are objecting to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibitions on journalists’ communicating with staff without going through Public Information Officers. They also dislike requirements that government PIOs vet interview questions and that they monitor interviews between journalists and sources. The practices have become increasingly pervasive for decades, the groups say, but have significantly advanced in the past several years, including under the Obama administration.

We like a turn of phrase that SPJ President David Cuillier uses to describe what’s going on: “excessive message management.”

Surely the press and watchdog groups are right about that — a public information officer holding a leash on a journalist to manage the message cannot be what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. What’s the point of press freedom if federal agencies are going to control what’s reported? It’s like telling the watchdog when to bark and when not to bark.

It’s also bad for federal employees. It could lead them down the path of behaving like partisans in jobs where expertise, not politics, is what their country really needs from them.

What is worth noting is in this case, it is a president from the Democratic Party who is trying to control the message the press reports to the public. The irony here is that the most recent Pew Research survey of attitudes on the press, from August 2013, showed far more Democrats than Republicans say the press protects democracy. The survey showed 59 percent of Democrats hold that view, compared to 27 percent of Democrats who said the press hurts democracy.

In contrast, slightly more Republicans said the press hurts democracy — 46 percent — compared to 43 percent of Republicans who said it helps democracy. Sounds like a group of people not happy with part of the First Amendment, and it’s not an isolated finding. When compared to Democrats, Republicans offered “significantly more critical evaluations of the press on eight of the 11 measures tested” in the Pew Research survey of a year ago.

Yet here’s the Democrat in Chief, demonstrating what he really believes about the First Amendment — that you can work around it with message management. So much for democracy, and some Democrats, in America.